The Ripon Forum

Volume 0, No. 0

June - July 2008

Is Merit Pay for Teachers Good? Yes.

By on November 24, 2015

Yes, it will reward educators for their performance and help keep talented teachers in the classroom


Performance pay is a powerful policy lever to reward teachers who perform exceptionally in the classroom and to attract new talent to the teaching profession. The traditional teacher pay schedule, which is used by approximately 95 percent of schools, not only lacks a motivational component, but it rewards complacency. Incentive pay encourages effective teachers to remain in teaching, as they seek out professional and monetary rewards, and it forces ineffective teachers out when they are repeatedly denied bonuses.

Most school districts struggle to continuously recruit effective teachers. Several organizations, like The New Teacher’s Project, are exploring avenues to recruit teachers from a variety of professional backgrounds. And some states and districts offer bonuses for teachers who accept positions in high-need schools, or who offer high-demand skills, like expertise in math and science.

Many talented young teachers are driven from the teaching profession because of the lack of opportunity for career advancement. The typical school structure contains the principal at the top of the pyramid, while the teachers form the base, with equal responsibilities and salary (with minor salary adjustments for experience and education level). If a teacher is given the same professional duties after ten years of teaching as he was in his first year of teaching, then the ambitious teacher will leave for a job that provides opportunities for advancement and increased respect.

Many performance pay systems, such as Q-Comp in Minnesota, create a career ladder for teachers that allow them to become mentors and teacher leaders. Consequently, teachers earn more money, take on more responsibilities, and gain more respect from their colleagues.

Other industries regular give bonuses to high performing employees. Why don’t schools?

Performance pay also creates incentives for teachers to improve their performance. Other industries regularly give bonuses to high performing employees. Why don’t schools? Wouldn’t a teacher be more likely to stay up all night grading essays and refining lesson plans if there was the possibility of a cash reward? The prospect of a financial reward, and the professional respect that accompanies it, will encourage teachers to continuously tweak their lesson plans and instructional techniques to best serve their students.

Unfortunately, some teachers are content to climb the pay scale, without adding innovation to their classroom. Most teacher contracts and teacher’s unions make it difficult to replace these teachers and they become a drag on a district’s budget and a stifling influence on school culture.

This does not have to be the case. Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten reached an historic compromise on teacher compensation reform: New York City public school teachers at over 200 high-need schools are now eligible for roughly $20 million in bonuses. And union chapters at 86% of the qualifying schools voted to participate in the performance pay program. Benchmarks for student test scores will be the primary factor in deciding which high-need schools are awarded bonuses. Then, compensation committees comprised of two teachers, the principal, and a principal’s appointee will determine the best way to split up the money among the teachers.

Performance pay systems, like the one in New York City, are often criticized when they are attached to student test scores. However, most modern performance pay programs, like the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), use multiple indicators to measure effective teaching, and student achievement on assessments is just one of those measures. TAP is seeing great results, and educators in over 180 schools throughout the country have adopted the program.

Performance pay is a powerful tool to recruit and retain new talent in the teaching profession…

However, some teachers fear the loss of collegiality that performance pay systems create. Many successful teacher incentive programs are designed to overcome this challenge by promoting and rewarding teacher collaboration. In fact, Karen Bucher, a principal in a TAP school said: “In the past, teachers worked mostly in isolation, often with little feedback on their performance unless there were real problems…With TAP, teachers are working together to improve their classroom instruction and they are getting timely feedback on their performance — a valuable component of teacher accountability.”

In order to combat concerns of subjectivity, well-devised merit pay system must have transparent statistical indicators so that the evaluations are easily explained to the teachers. Evaluations should be 360 degrees, including feedback from students, teachers, parents and administrators. Classroom observations should be conducted multiple times and evaluations should be completed by teams.

Performance pay is a powerful tool to recruit and retain new talent in the teaching profession, particularly in high-need districts and in high-demand subject areas. It also can make the teaching industry more professional by creating a career ladder that gives financial rewards to teachers who assume more responsibilities. Using market-based incentives to attract and keep talented teachers will better reward our teachers, better educate our children, and improve our nation’s schools.


Marc Lampkin is the Executive Director of Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan public awareness and advocacy effort aimed at elevating discussion amongst America’s leaders about the need for education reform.

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